Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third richest man, to challenge Putin

Russia‘s third richest man has said that he would seek to challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency, prompting speculation that the surprise move could be part of a Kremlin attempt to channel growing middle class opposition to Putin’s regime.

“I have made a decision, probably the most serious decision of my life,” the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov told journalists during a hastily called press conference on Monday. “I am going to run in the presidential election.” Prokhorov said he would seek to appeal to the disenchanted middle class with his candidacy and made sure to avoid direct criticism of Putin, who has drawn the ire of a growing protest movement hoping to challenge his authoritarian rule.

But the announcement appeared to some analysts to be a Kremlin attempt to redirect protesters’ ire from the streets, organised by the unauthorised opposition, into a liberal project controlled by the corridors of power. Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told Gazeta.ru that Prokhorov – who has a history of involvement in Kremlin-inspired politics – was “a pure fake and bluff”. Prokhorov presented his statement as a challenge to the Putin era. “Society is waking up, whether you want it or not,” he said. “If the powers, in the widest sense of the word, don’t carry out a dialogue [with the protesters], then those powers will soon have to go.”

However, his presidential bid presents a total about-face regarding Putin’s handling of the government. Just last week, as the first signs of the protest movement began to emerge, he took to his blog to say: “Whether you like it or not, Putin is so far the only one who can somehow manage this ineffective government machine.”

Prokhorov has survived a series of scandals to build a fortune of an estimated £11.5bn. He was forced to sell his stake in the metals giant Norilsk Nickel on the eve of the financial crisis in 2008, after becoming embroiled in a prostitution scandal in France. He now owns part of a major gold producer and the New Jersey Nets basketball team in the US.

The 6ft 8in billionaire has tried his hand at politics before. He spent a brief four months as head of the pro-business Right Cause party, until he was kicked out in September – something he blamed on the Kremlin’s chief strategist and ideologist Vladislav Surkov. The project was a failed attempt to garner liberal support ahead of the parliamentary elections earlier this month, and was apparently derailed by the Kremlin once it got too popular.

When asked what was missing from Russia’s political scene in a rare interview last week, Surkov answered: “A mass liberal party.” Prokhorov’s announcement led the evening news reports, tightly controlled by Surkov, indicating it was given official sanction.

Prokhorov insisted he had not discussed his candidacy with Putin, Surkov or President Dmitry Medvedev. The oligarch must gather 2m signatures of support before the elections commission approves his candidacy.

Russia’s protest movement, which saw 50,000 people denouncing election fraud and Putin’s rule on Saturday, has forced the Kremlin to acknowledge the void in liberal representation in government. The government has repeatedly refused to register liberal parties and has allowed no serious opponents to Putin to emerge.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said that the government was not involved in Prokhorov’s decision. “It has nothing to do with us. We have nothing to do with him.” He added Putin had been informed of Prokhorov’s announcement and had “no reaction”.

Prokhorov revealed few details on Monday, declining to outline his political platform or commit to whether he would make an appearance at Moscow’s next big protest, planned for 24 December. “I’d like to keep some mystery,” he said.

Prokhorov said he was holding talks with Alexei Kudrin, who was removed as finance minister in September after criticising Medvedev one day after the president said he would step aside in favour of Putin.

In an interview published on Monday, Kudrin called for the creation of a new liberal party following the protests. “The process of the consolidation of liberal and democratic forces will now go forward. I am absolutely certain of this, and I myself am ready to support this,” the long-time Putin ally told the Vedomosti newspaper.

When Prokhorov was at its head, Right Cause did manage to gain some support among the urban, middle class elite despite the Kremlin’s involvement. Yet it was unclear whether the same would be true after discontent has spilled onto the streets.

Meanwhile, Russia’s opposition continued to plan its next step, applying for permission to hold a 50,000-strong rally on 24 December just outside the Kremlin’s walls. One of the movements leaders, anti-corruption fighter Alexei Navalny, indicated in an interview from prison, where he is serving a 15-day sentence for disobeying police orders during Russia’s first protest, that he did not rule out running for the presidency.

“I think answering that question in this place and in the context of everything that is happening is stupid,” he told the New Times, an opposition magazine. “This shouldn’t be discussed here.”

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